A signpost to Russian democracy

For Russia's Opposition, yesterday's election was a checkpoint on the long, winding road to democracy. But whether Vladimir Putin will continue to behave himself is arguably the largest question of all.

Crikey

Never has the result of an election been more uncertain. Or, rather, the result of the result. Because while Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin was widely expected to win yesterday’s presidential poll – which he did in a rout, though not without reports of electoral violations calling its legitimacy immediately into question – it is rather more difficult to know what to expect from the aftermath of his doing so.

His crying in front of his supporters was notable, but it doesn’t really count.

The past six months have been exciting ones for Russia-watchers and the past three particularly so. The excitement and anger that marked the lead-up to yesterday’s poll, in the capital if not necessarily in the regions, was at times palpable. Last Saturday, when the Opposition took to Moscow’s streets in an attempt to line its 16-kilometre Garden Ring road, the former emotion took precedence. As reports of electoral violations started appearing on Saturday afternoon, and multiplied ferociously over the course of election day itself, the latter came to the fore.

If only because many media organisations will decline to do so, it is worth pointing out that these reports remain mostly unconfirmed. Independent monitoring organisations Golos and Transparency International both reported that they had observed no examples of so-called carousel voting or other instances of voter fraud in the capital. The League of Voters volunteer group reported 3000 as yet unconfirmed electoral violations, which we should obviously condemn wholeheartedly, but that’s still less than half the number reported at the parliamentary vote three months ago and well within the once and future president-elect’s margin of victory.

From berating the protesters on national television to framing the election in uncharacteristically apocalyptic terms, Putin has thrown away more than one good hand these past few months. His genuine popularity among voters outside the capital remained the one he seemed unwilling to play. When he did, he won, and won big.

But while those 3000 violations may not have impacted the outcome either way, the Opposition is going to seize on them as a sign of the result’s illegitimacy. Indeed, it already has. Not that it wouldn’t have taken to the streets again had those violations not come to light, of course. For them, even a legitimate victory for Putin would have been by definition illegitimate.

For while the Opposition’s rank and file may be demonstrating for free elections and democracy, it does no good to pretend that that’s all that its leaders are after, too. This is a political struggle for power. And what happens next, in the wake of all this, will be a little clearer today.

Yesterday’s events gave some hints. Walking down Tverskaya, one was liable to encounter columns of soldiers three men wide and 20 long, jogging into position beneath giant video images of the country’s standard. The Western correspondents’ favourite Opposition leader, Alexey Navalny, was holed up in a cafe-bar off Teatral’nyy, his bodyguards filtering visitors at the foot of the stairs as he reportedly held forth like Lenin after his arrival to the strains of La Marseillaise in St Petersburg in 1917. (The correspondents filed out of there pretty quickly after the election was called. They wanted to see Putin address his supporters, but I also suspect that the celebrity nationalist was despondent after promising the world an electoral run-off.)

On Teatral’naya Ploshchad, hundreds of OMON officers in their trademark blue fatigues stood smoking by a veritable convoy of arrest vans while loyalist kids too young to vote stood around sneering and breathing through their mouths. A chill wind blew around the Kremlin’s walls, both literally and otherwise. It was the coldest day I have experienced in Moscow since arriving here a little over a week ago.

The Russian flags came out when the sun came down and suddenly we were at a Hollywood premiere attend almost exclusively by thugs. Between the spotlights and the triumphant music, Tverskaya felt like an authoritarian Disney parade. Indeed, if it is difficult to resist the intoxicating high spirits of an Opposition protest, then it is even harden to resist the sense of unease that one feels in the face of a pro-regime rally and its essential nastiness.

But it was the military presence that was most breathtaking. Not since Ciudad Jurez celebrated Mexico’s Centenary of Revolution two years ago by dotting its rooftops with snipers and clogging its streets with jeeps manned by soldiers in balaclavas have I seen a nominally civilian space so militarised. And that city was defending itself against the credible threat posed by its drug cartels, not against that posed, or supposedly posed, by its own citizens, and this one yesterday left that one for dead.

As I write, OMON officers are already staking out Pushkinskaya Ploschad, the site of tomorrow’s Opposition protest. And the Opposition is feeling angry enough as it is.

Historical analogies aren’t particularly useful. This is no Arab Spring – the vast majority of protesters reject revolution out of hand – and comparisons to the US Civil Rights movement are premature at best. For all the ink that has been dedicated to their cause, the protesters have given little to no indication that they have the staying power required to keep fighting through another six-year presidential term. There are plenty of reasons to believe that they don’t.

Not least of these reasons is their fractious nature. A loose coalition of liberal democrats, communists and both run-of-the-mill and ultra nationalists, the Opposition would perhaps be better referred to in the plural. United predominantly by their anti-Putinism – even the calls for free elections seem to have more to do with preventing the prime minister’s return to the Kremlin in some cases than they do with any deeply-held commitment to democratic values – there is nothing to say that they will remain so beyond today.

Notable liberals like presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, who, as anyone who had spoken to a young person in this country might have told you, performed better than many official polls predicted, and former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, neither of whom are particularly trusted by the Opposition’s leaders if not its rank and file, are both said to be forming liberal Opposition parties. Even if these prove legitimate, however, and even if they actually manage to get off the ground, their platforms are hardly likely to appeal to the nationalist wing of the Opposition.

A charismatic font of good copy, Navalny may be a favourite of Western correspondents, but the anti-corruption blogger, lawyer and Opposition leader also talks a lot of disturbing jive. As historian and journalist Daniil Kotsyubinsky recently put it, Navalny’s politics are that of a "Russian nationalism whose imperial and anti-liberal […] crux is the preservation of the authoritarian-presidential model of state.” Navalny may not think that Putin should be at the head of it, but many liberals don’t think that he should be, either, and indeed have many understandable problems with the authoritarian-presidential model of state itself. Navalny may have toned down his rhetoric over the past few months, but that’s arguably because he’s trying to appeal to a group of people who, were they to scratch the surface of his blog, would be confronted with a number of positions and opinions that would likely cause them to change theirs on him.

But the real question to ask about the Opposition is not how long its leaders can prevent their coalition from splintering, but how long they can hold the attention of their supporters. For all their current excitement, this group is neither radically inclined, geographically diverse, or even especially large. Oppositionists in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, far more guarded in their optimism than their cosmopolitan counterparts, told me that numbers had dwindled and demographics narrowed after the first few Opposition rallies failed to change the status quo immediately.

All the older protesters went home. Rank-and-file Oppositionists who attended all previous rallies were yesterday reported as saying they would not attend today’s on the grounds that they were expecting a violent crackdown.

This is an important point. Moscow’s Opposition may take longer to break than the regions’, but it’s also worth remembering that regime hasn’t attempted to break it yet. Brutal crackdowns breed solidarity and the regime has taken care to avoid them. It may not need to take such care much longer.

For the Opposition, yesterday’s election was a checkpoint on the long and winding road to democracy. For Putin, it was the finishing line at the end of a sprint to six more years. He only needed to behave himself until then.

Whether he will continue to do so now that the election is over is arguably the largest question of them all. As I have already said, yesterday went some of the way towards providing an answer. Numerous commentators have attempted to go the rest of it. Renaissance Capital strategist Ivan Tchakarov expressed the first school of thought most eloquently earlier this month when he said: "Those who underestimate Putin’s ability to transform himself into a modest reformer in order to maintain his clout and popularity are in for a surprise.”

Lilia Shevtsova, senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, thinks that people like Tchakarov are in for one themselves. Writing in The Moscow Times, Shevtsova suggested that the regime will become more repressive than it’s ever been in the wake of the election, not only to break up the Opposition movement, but also just to keep a lid on what is likely to be increasingly widespread discontent.

Even if one disagrees with the specifics of this latter view, it is easier to subscribe to it than it is to the former one. One doesn’t have to be one of those journalists who secretly hope that the regime takes its gloves off and transforms them all into war correspondents to note the already disturbing signs. Foreign Policy’s Julia Ioffe has noted the manner in which the regime cracked down on Opposition media throughout the election campaign. Prokhorov’s campaign complained last week that its banners had been torn down illegally throughout the country. And riot police on the streets of the city yesterday – reportedly one quarter of the country’s total force – were not brought to town to keep loyalists in check.

After days of uncertainty following the authorities’ refusal to approve a post-election protest for Moscow’s Lyublanka Ploschad for this afternoon, the Opposition announced late last week that one had been approved for Pushkinskaya, a little father away from the Kremlin, instead. Given the Opposition leaders had said they would protest regardless, there was a certain sense of relief among them when the deal finally went through.

In every case that an unsanctioned meeting has gone ahead – such on December 5, when Navalny was arrested for attempting another unauthorised march, and in a separate protest on Ploshchad Revolyutsii, just outside the Kremlin, last weekend – the good graces displayed by the police these past months suddenly dissipated. No doubt the Opposition leaders were worried as well about what sort of turnout they might expect at such a protest. The unsanctioned meetings that have taken place thus far have not only been repressed. They have also been poorly attended.

Optimists have suggested that today’s authorised protest is likely to inspire the Opposition’s highest turnout yet. There has even been talk of an occupation, of the kind that kick-started Ukraine’s Orange Revolution six years ago.

But certain nationalist elements of the Opposition have already begun to accuse their liberal counterparts of cowardice and unacceptable compromise and have promised to head to Lyublanka anyway. Others have suggested that a splinter group may attempt to march on the Kremlin from Pushkinskaya. After three months of playing the peaceful democrat, Navalny now seems to be itching for a fight: he originally said the Opposition should protest in Lyublanka anyway and then, when Pushkinskaya was authorised as the site of the rally instead, invited his Twitter follows on an unauthorised march with him to Manezh Ploshchad, just outside the Kremlin’s walls, when it was over.

Regardless of Navalny’s celebrity, such a march unlikely to involve the vast majority of protesters. Regardless of the number of protesters who do get involved with it, it’s likely to be shut down pretty quickly.

But that’s just the problem. It seems unlikely that the authorities will continue to authorise protests from here on in, especially after an election that they will be able to claim, accurately or other, has returned their man to power legitimately. But the Opposition’s rank and file seem unwilling to protest without such authorisation.

Unless they prove prepared to radicalise – and it seems unlikely at this point that they will, today or at any other time – then their numbers are likely to dwindle, leaving only the hardcore among them to battle it out with police for the next six years. Whether a long war of attrition or a direct collision between the regime and civil society, the result of the weekend’s result remains as up in the air as ever.

Later today, we can expect it to land.

This story first appeared on www.crikey.com.au on March 5. Republished with permission.